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Fantastic Directors and How to Hire Them

With so much expansion, into so many cinematic universes, competent franchise filmmakers are in high demand. David Yates, Jon M. Chu, and others talk about the task of shepherding beloved stories to the big screen.

Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Warner Bros./Getty Images/Ringer illustration

By Eric Ducker

David Yates’s introduction to the world of Harry Potter was inauspicious, and exceedingly English. In the mid-2000s, he met David Heyman, the producer behind the already-massive film franchise, at a cake shop in London’s Soho neighborhood. At the time, the soft-spoken Yates was known for his work on British television crime dramas, particularly the political miniseries State of Play — not the usual testing ground for tales of Patronus charms and toddler giants named Grawp. “I was finishing a project called Sex Traffic, of all things,” Yates remembers. “[Heyman] just wanted to chat. I had no idea he wanted me to do Harry Potter. He was sussing me out, really.”

The first two Harry Potter films were directed by Chris Columbus, the Steven Spielberg and John Hughes acolyte who helmed Home Alone and Mrs. Doubtfire. Columbus’s Potter adaptations were old-fashioned family-oriented fantasies, appreciated by fans for how dutifully they brought author J.K. Rowling’s world to the screen. For the third Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban, Alfonso Cuarón was hired (reportedly over other candidates like Kenneth Branagh), off the back of his acclaimed, decidedly adult drama Y Tu Mamá También.

As the Potter stories moved from childhood wonder to adolescent turmoil, Cuarón embraced the anxiety and isolation within Azkaban. It was the first Harry Potter film that felt like it had a distinct directorial perspective, and is still considered the best in the series by critics and most die-hard fans. Cuarón left the franchise to make Children of Men and was replaced for the middling Goblet of Fire by Mike Newell, whose credits stretched back to the 1960s and included Donnie Brasco and Four Weddings and a Funeral.

Yates was hired to oversee the fifth entry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. “With Potter, the train had already left the station,” Yates says of his entry point. “I had an opportunity to influence it somewhat — made it slightly darker, made it a bit more intense, because that’s the direction the books were taking — but the world was already set.”

Unlike the one-and-done or two-and-through filmmakers that preceded him, Yates directed the final four installments of the eight-part series. His films combined to take in more than $4 billion at the global box office and delivered a satisfying conclusion for the series.

In 2014, three years after the release of the final Harry Potter, Yates was about to begin shooting The Legend of Tarzan when he got a call from Heyman. The producer had received the first draft of an original screenplay by Rowling called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a new story set in the same universe as Harry Potter. Heyman wanted to know if Yates would be interested. “Rather than jump on the train halfway along its journey, I get to drive the engine out of the station. I get to cast it and define it and set it up,” says Yates. “For all those reasons, it was a no-brainer to say yes.”

These days, successful film franchises have moved far beyond the tame borders of trilogies. As the expanded Marvel and Star Wars universes have shown, they now also include the possibility of prequels, genre experiments, and one-off concepts that sometimes seem lifted from fan fiction. These franchises are crucial to the bottom line of studios, with releases mapped out years in advance and new installments arriving annually. As such, there is a growing need for directors who can be trusted to deliver quality products, on time and on budget. They are asked to not get in the way of what works about these worlds, while simultaneously bringing a unique perspective that won’t bore audiences.

Set in 1920s New York, Fantastic Beasts hits theaters this Friday and is projected to make $75 million in the United States during its opening weekend. It is the first entry in a planned five-part franchise, and Yates has said that he hopes to direct them all. While the film dazzles when it needs to, it also often feels like a TV pilot, establishing relationships and tossing out strands of story to be gathered and tied together over years, not during its 133-minute running time.

Rowling’s expansion of her wizarding world to a new continent and a new era is a big deal, both culturally and financially — this is a property so big that there are literal wizarding worlds devoted to it. So it follows that the Fantastic Beasts movies would be entrusted to Yates’s steady hands.

Certain filmmakers have come to specialize in this kind of franchise gig. Brothers Joe and Anthony Russo went from conceptual TV comedies (Community, Happy Endings) to helming the past two Captain America movies and the next two Avengers films. Justin Lin resuscitated the Fast & Furious franchise, directing installments three through six before taking over the third entry of the rebooted Star Trek, replacing J.J. Abrams when Abrams moved to a galaxy far, far away. Then there’s Jon M. Chu, who has made a career hopping from franchise to franchise, beginning with the second and third Step Up movies, and later G.I. Joe: Retaliation and the magic caper Now You See Me 2 (as well as the franchise’s next sequel, which is currently in development).

“In a weird way, it’s like a remix version,” Chu says of these films. “You get to come in and add your style. You know what was done in the past, you know what worked, what didn’t work. You get to take over from there.”

When Chu took over Step Up, the franchise had lost its stars, Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan. Their love story was the engine of the original film. So he made what are essentially sports films set in the dance battle subculture that was booming at the time. On Now You See Me 2, Chu retained most of the original’s cast — Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Dave Franco, and Woody Harrelson — but changed the viewers’ perspective, giving them the protagonists’ view as their tricks develop, rather than just being spectators watching the final results. “What’s cool about franchises is that it’s not the end-all be-all,” Chu says. “Your version is your version, and someone else may come along and do their version.”

Chu is currently developing a film adaptation of the popular Crazy Rich Asians series of novels. He talks excitedly about the possibility of directing all three entries, the first major American studio films with an entirely Asian cast and with two Asian actors as the romantic leads. So, how would he feel if the studio then brought in another director to make more films in a franchise he developed? “I’ve been in those shoes,” he says. “It does feel like the Twilight Zone a little bit when you see the cast that you put together in a different way. I understand that trepidation. I understand the caution to make sure that it’s done right and that you have the right person do it and they’re going to at least honor what you think the audience enjoyed of your movie. But I also understand that they’re riding the horse and it’s not yours to dictate. Hopefully they’re bringing something that you could never bring, and that’s the best-case scenario.”

It’s rare to retain the same director throughout a franchise’s run. After Transformers: The Last Knight is released next year, Michael Bay will leave the long-running saga, and the robots will continue to punch each other without him. Some splits with directors are particularly contentious, as was the case when Catherine Hardwicke separated from Twilight after the first film. Most franchises have maintained or improved on their box office performances as they’ve continued — that’s why Hollywood keeps making them. The most notable exception is the spiraling Divergent Series, where it’s not clear how or if the final film will come out.

When director Gary Ross left The Hunger Games franchise after the first film because of the tight production timetable for the sequel, producer Nina Jacobson had to scramble for a replacement — she already had a release date and options on the actors for the first sequel. Jacobson chose Francis Lawrence. The one-time music video director had impressed with I Am Legend, but couldn’t seem to find his footing afterward. Things went so well during Catching Fire preproduction that Jacobson locked Lawrence in for the two-part Mockingjay that concluded the series. In cases like this, a new director doesn’t just maintain a franchise, he provides an opportunity for creative evolution. “If the change is imperceptible, you’re not getting a vision from the filmmaker who is inheriting the franchise,” says Jacobson. “What makes a film interesting is authorship.”

Jacobson’s production company, Color Force, also produces the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies, which have a protagonist she describes as “the Larry David of middle school.” Former animator David Bowers took over the second and third entries after the original’s director, Thor Freudenthal, left to do the second Percy Jackson, a currently stalled franchise that, like Harry Potter, started with Chris Columbus (whoa, circular).

Eleven Wimpy Kid books have been published and it’s still popular with young readers. When 20th Century Fox decided to restart (not reboot) the franchise with the forthcoming Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul after a five-year gap, Color Force brought in an entirely new cast, but kept Bowers as the director. “Being able to have a little bit of edge, but still knowing how far you can push the character and when he needs to be redeemed, and knowing that we had that understanding between us and the material, it’s not something you can take for granted,” says Jacobson.

Of all the franchises launched this century, the mega success of The Fast and the Furious may have been the least expected. In some ways, it would have been harder to make Harry Potter a failure, such was the goodwill toward the original material. There was no nostalgia factor attached to Fast & Furious, nor any pre-existing source material to guide the stories. What began as a rehash of Point Break set inside the world of underground street racing has turned into an international action spectacular. The eighth installment will be released next April. Ever since director Rob Cohen left the series following the 2001 original, producer Neal Moritz has hired a range of directors for the sequels, from leveling-up talent like Justin Lin and James Wan, to more-tested veterans like John Singleton and F. Gary Gray.

(Moritz and Harry Potter’s David Heyman actually started their careers together, sharing producer credits on the early 1990s pay-cable classics Juice and The Stöned Age.)

Moritz sees each successive Fast & Furious film as a correction to the previous installments. When the series began to go stale after 2 Fast 2 Furious, he hired Justin Lin, who gave the franchise an infusion of youth culture and a new location with The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. After fielding criticism that the stunts in last year’s Furious 7 felt increasingly improbable, Moritz turned to Gray for Fast 8 because the director pitched action sequences that would feel grounded in reality.

The expectations for the Fast & Furious movies only continue to grow, and so does the degree of difficulty to match those expectations. As to how much of the choice of director comes down to Moritz’s faith in that person to land the proverbial plane, he says: “I have 16 years of my life [with the franchise], and probably my legacy in the movie business will be Fast & Furious, so I take it extremely seriously. I want to win. I’m definitely not taking this lightly.”

Franchising may be at the heart of current mainstream moviemaking, but in case that doesn’t work out, the other option is to reboot, preferably with the Rock as the star. (In the coming years you can catch him jump-starting Baywatch and Jumanji, plus starring in film adaptations of Doc Savage, Shazam!, and the 1980s video game Rampage.)

The world of Fast & Furious has continued to balloon as new characters have been added. I asked Moritz if he had ever consider starting the whole thing over, like he almost did with Tokyo Drift. “Here’s the thing, I have a movie coming out in December called Passengers with Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. I think the total strength of that movie is the fact that it is something wholly original. Now, the only reasons that I could make that movie as a wholly original, expensive film is because I happen to have probably the top male and top female stars in the world. It’s hard to convince studios to let you do original ideas because of the expense of them when you have to educate an audience as to what the property is, but I think if you can deliver on the promise of something wholly [original], your upside is just tremendous.”

Of course that potential upside isn’t just millions of dollars in ticket sales or critical acclaim or award statues, it could also mean more movies. Outer space is infinite, and so are the stories that can be told about travelling through it. That spaceship that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt are stuck on could go anywhere, which might mean more work for directors you can trust with your IP.